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June 10, 2012

A poetic stroll in Gion: Water beneath the pillow (Kyoto Guide)

When you say Kyoto, you say Gion, the traditional pleasure quarter at the foot of the Yasaka Shrine. Although Hanamikoji, the street south of Shijodori starting with the Ichiriki Teahouse, may be most the most famous part of Gion, there is also a nice section north of Shijodori, along the Shirakawa Canal. Here the protruding windows of the two-story houses have lattices on the ground floor and reed screens on the second floor. Bamboo slats called inuyarai keep dogs and people at a safe distance. When you walk through this area, in the daytime you may hear the shamisen being practised and at the beginning of the evening, around fice o'clock, geisha and maiko hurry to their appointments.

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[Poetry stone by Yoshii Isamu in Gion Shirakawa area]

The poet, novelist and playwright Yoshii Isamu (1886-1960) was a Bohemian who spent his fortune in the geisha houses of Gion. His favorite teahouse was the artsy Daitomo, where writers used to gather. In WWII, the Daitomo was demolished in order to create a firebrake, but in 1955 on the site at the boards of the Shirakawa, a poetry stone was set up as a memorial. It is graced by the following tanka by Yoshii:
que sera sera...
my love is Gion
where when I sleep
below my pillow
water flows 
kanikaku ni | Gion wa koishi | neru toki mo | makura no shita ni | mizu no nagaruru

"Kanikaku ni"means something like "in any case," or even "que sera sera." The water in the poem is of course the Shirakawa, which flowed under the windows of the Daitomo and now behind the poetry stone.

Because the poem so aptly catches what Gion is all about, a festival is held here annually at November 8. At 11:00 geisha and maiko gather near the poetry stone to offer chrysanthemums and perform a tea ceremony. The festival, called Kanikakuni-sai after the first line of the poem, offers onlookers a good chance to take pictures of the geisha in their gorgeous kimono.

But at other and more quiet times, too, this spot at the Shirakawa is a pleasure to visit. Come in the late morning, listen to the gurgling water, and notice how in the distance, in one of the closed houses, a shamisen starts twanging...